housands of vendors have crammed into the huge annual Consumer Electronics Show this week in Las Vegas, showing off everything from a single-seat electric sports car to a portable, solar-powered stove that’ll also grill, roast, or boil your food. Amid all the bling, there are dozens of digital health devices — a sign of a booming industry that’s attracted nearly $9 billion in venture capital over the past two years.
But will consumers actually buy these new gadgets? Or use them?
Looking over a slew of the health products premiering at CES, I found some that seemed useful. Others, I’m not sure I’d ever touch. They sound like they’d tell me way more about my health and fitness than I care to know.
That’s not surprising, behavioral health researcher Sharon Larson told me. In general, “we know that patients like to have more information [rather] than less information about their health care,” said Larson, who works with Geisinger Health System in Pennsylvania. But there’s a whole class of folks whom Larson called “medically anxious.” For them, she said, the jury’s still out as to whether “having more information makes them more anxious.”
Here’s a curated tour of six devices that I thought might be too much for me.
The app that lets you know how dirty the air you’re breathing is
The BreezoMeter monitors air pollution from thousands of sensors worldwide, then pinpoints your location to tell you how just how dirty your air is — the air you’re breathing right at that moment. That might sound ideal for an asthmatic like me who gets wheezy if someone is smoking within 10,000 yards. But there’s nothing I can do about the air pollution on a given street, so I don’t think I’d want to know how hard my lungs are working as I pass through. Plus, I shudder to think of what the data would look like if the app worked in the subway.
The headphones that tell you if you’re not working out hard enough
Kuai’s multisport biometric headphones track your workouts, feeding you information on how long your next lap or interval should last and nudging you if you need to up the intensity. This, to me, seems like something I would interpret as a passive-aggressive dig at my fitness. Or lack thereof. I don’t need a machine to let me know that I’m slowing down on a run — if I’m slowing down, it’s probably to puff on my inhaler because BreezoMeter has notified me of severe pollution ahead.
The sensor that straps around your chopstick arms
The Gymwatch sensor seems perfect for strength trainers who want to keep track of muscle building. You know who it’s not perfect for? People like me who can’t lift more than the bar on the arm machine at the gym. The sensor also transmits your weightlifting data to your smartphone. Which is handy and even a confidence booster for some people, I’m sure, but that might not be the case for everyone.
The monitor that confirms you do, in fact, sleep poorly
There are probably lots of benefits from the Emfit QS sleep monitor, which tracks your tossing and turning and monitors how your heart rate changes during rest. It even sticks under your mattress, so unless you’re that princess who felt the pea, it won’t bother you while you sleep. But there’s one thing this device tracks that I don’t want to know — how poorly I sleep.
The beauty mask that maps out all your flaws
The MAPO mask sounds like it’s part of Jason’s go-to beauty routine in the horror movie “Friday the 13th.” The white mask scans your face to tell you where your dry spots are. After you apply your lotion of choice, you can put the mask back on to get some gentle heat targeted to those spots. That’s supposed to boost the lotion’s moisturizing effect. The personalized skin care seems good in theory, but I’m afraid I’d scare myself to half to death if I saw my reflection in the mirror wearing a MAPO.
The band that tells you when you’re being a total crank
The wearable band Sensaura has to be the most high-tech mood ring I’ve ever seen. The device claims to detect your real-time emotions and triggers set actions to help you deal with all your feelings. If you’re stressed, for example, it could play a relaxing song. Or if you’re nervous, it’ll give you a quick pep talk. But, somehow, I’m not sure I would find it all that relaxing to have the same “relaxing” playlist popping on every time I’m stressed. When I’m cranky, I’d like the option of remaining in denial.
If I did ever decide to buy these devices, or the many others on display at CES, what would I do with all the data? It might help me keep track of my own health and fitness. But with many wearables, it’s not yet clear that they produce information that’s useful is in a clinical setting, said Teresa Wang, senior research manager at digital health investment fund Rock Health.
“Doctors get the data and often don’t know what to do with it,” Wang said. But she promised that in the future, “we’ll be able to find utility in that data.”
Even, perhaps, in a map of my dry skin.